First Lady (Wynette, Texas #4)(7)

by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

“Get the baby.”

“Forget it.”

Some battles weren’t worth fighting, so he headed down a hallway with a worn gray carpet and a bedroom opening off each side. One had obviously been Sandy’s. The other had an unmade twin bed and a crib. A whimper came from behind the bumper pads.

Although the crib was old, it was clean. The carpet around it was vacuumed, and some toys were tossed in a blue laundry basket. A rickety changing table held a small stack of neatly folded clothes, along with an open box of disposable diapers.

The whimpering turned into a full-fledged yowl. He moved closer and saw a pink-clad bottom wiggling in the air. Then a head covered with a few inches of straight blond hair popped up. He took in a furious, rosy-cheeked face and a wet, down-turned mouth that was open and yowling. It was his childhood all over again.

“Quiet down, kid.”

The baby’s cries stopped, and a set of gumball-blue eyes regarded him suspiciously. At the same time he grew aware of an unpleasant smell and realized his day had taken one more turn for the worse.

He sensed movement behind him and saw the Winona lookalike standing in the doorway chewing on another fingernail and watching every move he made. There was something distinctly protective about the glances she kept shooting at the crib. The kid wasn’t nearly the hard ass she pretended to be.

He jerked his head toward the baby. “She needs her diaper changed. I’ll meet you in the living room when you’re done.”

“Like, get real. I don’t change shitty diapers.”

Since she’d been taking care of the baby for weeks, that was obviously a lie, but if she expected him to do it, she could think again. When he’d finally escaped from the Hell House of Women, he’d promised himself that he’d never change another diaper, look at another Barbie, or tie another frigging hair bow. Still, the kid had guts, so he decided to make it easy on her. “I’ll give you five bucks.”

“Ten. In advance.”

If he hadn’t been in such a foul mood, he might have laughed. At least she had street smarts to go along with all that bravado. He pulled his wallet from his pocket and handed over the money. “Meet me by my car as soon as you’re done. And bring her along.”

Her forehead creased, and for a moment she looked more like a soccer mom than a sullen teenager. “You got a car seat?”

“Do I look like somebody who’s got a car seat?”

“You got to put a kid in a car seat. It’s the law.”

“You a cop?”

She cocked her head. “Her seat’s in Mabel. The Winnebago. Sandy called it Mabel.”

“Didn’t your mother have a car?”

“The dealer took it back a couple of months before she died, so she drove Mabel.”

“Swell.” He wasn’t going to ask how she’d come into possession of a battered motor home. Instead, he tried to figure out how he was supposed to get a teenager, a baby, and a car seat in his two-passenger Mercedes. Only one answer. He wasn’t.

“Give me the keys.”

He could see her trying to figure out if she could get away with mouthing off again, then wisely concluding she couldn’t.

Keys in hand, he went outside to get acquainted with Mabel. On the way, he picked up the cell phone from his Mercedes, along with the newspaper he hadn’t found a chance to read.

He needed to duck to get into the motor home, which was roomy, but not roomy enough for six feet six. He settled behind the wheel and put in a call to a doctor pal of his in Pittsburgh for the name of a nearby lab and the necessary authorization. While he was on hold, he picked up the newspaper.

Like most journalists, he was a news junkie, but nothing unusual caught his attention. There’d been an earthquake in China, a car bombing in the Middle East, budget squabbles in Congress, more trouble in the Balkans. Toward the bottom of the page was a picture of Cornelia Case with another sick baby in her arms.

Although he’d never been much of a Cornelia watcher, she seemed thinner in every recent photograph. The First Lady had terrific blue eyes, but they’d started to appear too big for her face, and nice eyes couldn’t make up for the fact that there didn’t seem to be a real woman behind them, just an extremely smart politician programmed by her father.

When he’d been at Byline, they’d done a couple of puff pieces on Cornelia—her hairdresser, her taste in fashion, how she honored her husband’s memory—bullshit stuff. Still, he felt sorry for her. Having a husband assassinated would put a crimp in anybody’s happy face.

He frowned at the memory of his year in tabloid television. Before then, he’d been a print journalist, one of the most highly regarded reporters in Chicago, but he’d thrown away his reputation to make a pile of money he’d soon discovered he had little interest in spending. Now all he wanted out of life was to wipe the tarnish off his name.

Mat’s idols weren’t Ivy League journalists, but guys who’d used two fingers to punch out hard-hitting stories on old Remington typewriters. Men as rough around the edges as he was. There had been nothing flashy about his work when he was writing for the Chicago Standard. He’d used short words and simple sentences to describe the people he met and what they cared about. Readers had known they could count on him to shoot straight. Now he was on a quest to prove that was true again.

Quest. The word had an archaic quality to it. A quest was the province of a holy knight, not a steeltown roughneck who’d let himself forget what was important in life.

His old boss at the Standard had said Mat could return to his former job, but the offer had been begrudging, and Mat refused to go back with his hat in his hands. Now he was driving around the country searching for something to take with him. Wherever he stopped—big town or small—he picked up a paper, talked to people, and nosed around. Even though he hadn’t found it, he knew exactly what he was looking for—the seeds of a story big enough to give him back his reputation.

He’d just finished his calls when the door swung open and Winona climbed into the motor home with the baby, who was barefoot and dressed in a yellow romper with lambs on it. She had a peace sign tattooed on one chubby ankle.

“Sandy had her baby tattooed?”

Winona gave him a look that said he was too dumb to live. “It’s a rub-on. Don’t you know anything?”

His sisters were grown up by the time the tattoo craze had started, thank God. “I knew it was a rub-on,” he lied. “I just don’t think you should put something like that on a baby.”